Running time 106 minutes
Written by Noah Stollman
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe
Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected, from a screenplay by Noah Stollman, based on the 1968 novel by Yoram Kaniuk, deals with an absurdist fictional sidelight of the Nazi Holocaust that was once rumored to be a project for the late Orson Welles. The book itself has continued to be controversial during the 40 years since it was published. The narrative deals with Adam Stein, a Berlin nightclub performer in the ’30s who is sent to a concentration camp, where he is ordered by a whimsically sadistic camp commandant to “perform” permanently as a dog except in those periods when he is required to play a violin as his co-religionists, including his own family, are marched off to the gas chambers. Later, when he is liberated by the victorious Soviet Army, he relocates in Israel, where he is moved into an experimental insane asylum in the Negev desert. There he serves as a destabilizing influence on the other inmates as he enjoys the sexual favors of an attractive nurse.
One day in the asylum, Adam discovers a room in which a young boy is confined because he has been conditioned in the camps from early childhood to believe that he is a dog. Adam’s heart goes out to the creature, who mirrors his own ordeal at the hands of the Nazi commandant 15 years before. In Adam’s recurrently manic swings between lucidity and lunacy, his experiences pose the question of how a human being can remain sane in an insane world, and rational in an irrationally absurdist situation.
I have not read the novel on which the film is based, and so I have no way of knowing how faithful to the book is the movie’s intricate flashback structure, which keeps alternating between the camp, the asylum, the ’60s civilian life of Tel Aviv, the ’30s world of Berlin, back and forth, until Adam is left in a state of terminal despair despite his having “cured” a fellow human being of Adam’s own dehumanizing delusion.
As Mr. Stollman, the film’s screenwriter, describes his approach to adapting the novel to the screen. “It’s an amazing, masterful work that is rich, dense and written in a complete stream of consciousness, jumping back and forth in time without any transitional structure. So I had to find a way to translate that to the screen. For me, Adam was the anchor. Through Adam the audience is able to move back and forth in time to see how his past has informed his approach to the present in so many ways.”
Elaborating on his modus operandi, Mr. Stollman continues: “As I was writing I also thought a lot about a quote from Emerson that appears in the book, ‘man is a God in ruins.’ The idea that man has the potential to be divine, yet with an overriding instinct for depravity, is a very Kaniuk-esque idea and one that helped me to get a grasp on Adam’s character.”
Even so, it took two years for Mr. Stollman and the producer, Ehud Bleiberg, to come up with a workable script. After several other directors, most notably Werner Herzog, passed on the touchy project, Paul Schrader accepted the directorial invitation without any hesitation. For the role of Adam, the casting of Jeff Goldblum was a no-brainer for Mr. Schrader: “Casting is destiny,” the director declared. “I thought Jeff was born to play this role, and he lived up to all my expectations. The role is the culmination of everything he’s done in his career and all he has learned as an actor to this point.”
Mr. Schrader’s second casting coup was Willem Dafoe in the role of the commandant, an officer named Klein, who first appears as a potentially suicidal audience member at Adam’s Berlin cabaret act. Mr. Schrader had already directed Mr. Dafoe in The Walker, Auto Focus and Affliction. The Adam-Klein synergy constitutes the dominant dramatic relationship in the film, because of the Goldblum-Dafoe high-voltage acting electricity.
Among the other leading participants in Adam Resurrected are British theater luminary Derek Jacobi’s Dr. Nathan Gross, head of the fictional psychiatric institute, and Israeli beauty Ayelet Zurer’s Gina Grey, the aggressively complaisant nurse for Adam’s every carnal need.
On one occasion, the nurse goes so far as to get down on all fours and bark like a dog to help Adam cure his neurosis. If I have made the movie seem a bit insane, I must admit that I have only scratched the surface of its massive strangeness. Still, I can tentatively recommend it if only because there has never been anything like it in the history of cinema as far as I can remember.